The blues grew up in an environment of the most virulent racism and discrimination, perpetrated by white people on the black communities of the Southern States. Many of the early blues songs bear witness to the suffering endured by black communities. In 1930, Lead Belly sang Jim Crow, bemoaning the inequity he found everywhere he went: “I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore, Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow.” Eleven years later, Josh White gave us Jim Crow Blues, where he complains he “ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat.”
Lead Belly also suffered racism in the nation’s capital. In Bourgeois Blues, he tells us about the ostracism he faced as a black person: “Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs, We heard the white man say’n I don’t want no niggers up there.” Then:
“Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow.”
But those days are long gone, right?
Last week the news emerged that the police commissioner of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Robert Copeland, admitted to publically calling the president of the United States a “f***ing nigger.” In March Jane O’Toole overheard Copeland make the remark as she finished her dinner in a local bistro.
O’Toole complain to the town management, but Copeland was unrepentant, saying in an email to his fellow police commissioners, “I believe I did use the ‘N-word’ in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse. For this, I do not apologise – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.” His loudly stated opinion, according to Copeland, was merely an exercise of his first amendment rights.
The sorry tale was compounded by the Chairman of the Police Commission, Joseph Balboni, saying he had no plans to ask Copeland to resign. He said of Copeland, “He’s worked with a lot of blacks in his life. . . . He said some harsh words about Mr. Obama, and here we are. This woman, she’s blowing it all out of proportion.” Mr. Copeland has now resigned.
There have been other incidents of expressions of racism recently. One Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who is leading a ranchers’ dispute with the government over cattle grazing, recently wondered whether the “Negro” shouldn’t be back in chains. He recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids – and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch – they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do…And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Bundy, the New York Times reported, has become a celebrity, “drawing hundreds of supporters, including dozens of militia members, many carrying sidearms, and members of Oath Keepers, a militia group, who have embraced him as a symbol of their anger and a bulwark against federal abuse.”
Then there’s the recent case of Donald Sterling, manager of the LA Clippers basketball team, who asked his girlfriend not to take pictures with black friends or bring them to games. “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f*** him,” he said of former basketball legend, Magic Johnson. “But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.”
Racism is alive and well on the other side of the Atlantic as well. The host of the BBC’s successful Top Gear programme, was caught on camera reciting a version of “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” from his childhood in which he is heard to mutter “catch a nigger by the toe.” Clarkson’s got form in this regard, of course, previously calling Mexicans “lazy, feckless and flatulent.”.
Perhaps this is just a few ignorant and well-known people getting caught saying some things they shouldn’t. In a recent Guardian newspaper article, however, Gary Younge argued that racism is “a system of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics and nurtured by economics, in which some groups face endemic disadvantage” and went on to say that, “The reality of modern racism is…the institutional marginalisation of groups performed with the utmost discretion and minimum of fuss by well-mannered and often well-intentioned people working in deeply flawed systems. According to a recent US department of education report, black preschoolers (mostly four-year-olds) are four times more likely to be suspended more than once than their white classmates. According to a 2013 report by Release, a UK group focusing on drugs and drug laws, black people in England and Wales are far less likely to use drugs than white people but six times more likely to be stopped and searched for possession of them. In both countries black people are far more likely to be convicted, and to get stiffer sentences and longer jail time.”
The blues, forged as they were at a time of deep distress and racial oppression, continue to be a howl of protest and a stark warning about the racism that, sadly, often seems to be just under the surface.